Introducing…

NEVER LET ME FALL

 

Seeing is believing…

Thomas Brown can’t see color, but he can see people’s true souls. His abilities allow him to work with criminal investigators and deliver justice to families of the wronged. And he’s starting to accept that his life will forever be in black and white…

Then he encounters Helena Grayse, and everything changes. She brings vibrant color to his world, and he brings acceptance and belief to hers. But Helena’s past is quickly catching up with her, and Thomas is in the crosshairs.

As an enemy hidden in plain sight threatens their every move, they’ll have to rely on their love to beat the darkness.

Fatal Dreams series:

Race the Darkness (Book 1)
Hunt the Dawn (Book 2)
Never Let Me Fall (Book 3)

**ALL NOVELS ARE STANDALONE AND DO NOT NEED TO BE READ IN ORDER**

Purchase here:

AMAZON

 

What People Are Saying About Abbie Roads:
“A dark and intense romance that pulls no punches and offers plenty of mind-bending twists.”—RT Book Reviews for Hunt the Dawn

“A haunting story about love, redemption, overcoming the past, and acceptance.”—Harlequin Junkie for Saving Mercy

“Roads blends high-action romantic suspense with the paranormal to tell a love story.” —Booklist for Race the Darkness


Chapter 1

There were only two options open to Helena Grayse—survive or die. Never had that been clearer than on this night. Her final night in the Fairson Reformatory for Women.

The lights were off, the shadows deep, and the minutes until morning passed slower than the previous ten years. Her heart throbbed, locking her in hypervigilance. She lay on her bunk, her gaze darting erratically around the darkened women’s dorm, while she strained to hear even the slightest of sounds.

The Eight Sisters Posse had despised her the moment she crossed the prison’s threshold, placing her firmly at the bottom of the food chain. At the time, she didn’t understand their insta-hate, but over the years they’d taught her all about it.

She was better than they were. Not really, but that’s what theythought because she wasn’t a junkie, had an education, and—the thing they hated most, the thing they wouldn’t forgive—she acted innocent. She hadn’t bothered to tell them she really was innocent of murdering her boyfriend, Rory Ellis. They wouldn’t have believed her anyway. No one believed a felon.

Dorm B contained bunk beds to conserve space. Five rows of five beds, double stacked. Fifty inmates. Prison overcrowding at its finest. Her bunk sat dead center in the room. Four of the Sisters slept in here. Better odds than eight on one, but still daunting.

Carrie Lane slept in the bunk behind her, head-to-head with Helena. One freedom they possessed—which way to lie in their beds. “Lena?” Carrie whispered so quietly it was barely a breath of sound.

She hated being called Lena, but that was her prison name. Chosen for her. And like everything else in here, she’d had to live with it. She’d never particularly liked Grandma’s nickname for her—Helen—but now she’d sell what was left of her sanity to be called that again. That was the power of nostalgia.

“You know they’re coming for you tonight.” Carrie’s words contained no real emotion. No concern. Just a passing along of information. “I hope you have a plan.”

If she had a plan, she wasn’t going to share it with anyone. Trust didn’t exist in here.

Cuts, scrapes, bruises, and broken bones happened when the Sisters were being nice. Tonight—the eve of her release—nice wasn’t part of their plan. This was their last chance to kill her. They’d almost succeeded countless times before, but by some double miracle she’d survived a gang shanking, asphyxiation, and things she didn’t want to think about.

Across the dorm to her left, someone sighed. At the same time on her right, there was a faint rustle of the blankets. Was that sigh more than a sigh? Was it a signal? She sounded paranoid even to herself, but paranoia had kept her alive. Barely.

She turned her head and looked toward the rustling blanket sound, but saw no one. Only two more rows of women sleeping quietly. That was a danger sign all its own. Things were noisier during the night. It had taken her years to get used to the noise of sleeping with forty-nine other women.

Breathing. Coughing. Sex. Sniffling. Snoring. Farts.

But tonight there was just that one sigh. A signal from the Sisters.

Her body vibrated from a terrible combination of fear and impatience. Why didn’t they just hurry up and make their move? End the awful anticipation that had its jaws clamped around her.

Two bunks behind her and one to the left, Bertie started snoring. The older woman was silent as the night if she lay on her side, but turned into a lumber mill every time she lay on her back. Whoever bunked underneath Bertie inherited the job of kicking the bottom of Bertie’s bed until the older woman rolled over. Or else no one in the dorm would get any sleep.

Bertie kept the racket up. The noise grating and annoying and ominous. Paranoia told Helena that Bertie’s snoring was part of the Sister’s plan. Disguise the sound of their movements—their attack—with Bertie’s chain-saw snores.

From the corner of her eye, Helena spotted the first Sister. She crawled in the left aisle, her movements slow, silent, steady. A second Sister crept on all fours up the right aisle. It was too risky to stand because of the cameras. If the corrections officers paid the tiniest bit of attention, they’d be able to see the movement. But the COs weren’t paid enough to be thatobservant.

Helena would just bet the remaining two Sisters were coming from behind her. They always attacked in numbers.

Less than five seconds stood between her and death.

“They’re coming,” Carrie breathed. Her warning surprised Helena, but there was no time to dwell on it.

Her mind kicked into hyperdrive, sorting through options. Forward was blocked. Behind her was blocked. The guard station would be no help—they’d just tell her to go back to bed. Or if they did help her, they’d expect payment. Would blowing one of them be worth saving her life? Could she let her body be used for their pleasure in order to survive the night? Not if she couldn’t live with herself afterward. And she couldn’t. She’d rather die fighting. Or running. Running seemed like the better option. She’d fight when cornered like she always did, but right now she’d run.

In one fluid movement, she rolled to the left off the bunk and onto the floor between the Sisters coming from the front and the back. She recognized both of them and sent a silent thank-you skyward that they were both big girls.

“You dead,” one of them hissed.

Helena dived perpendicular underneath the bunk across the aisle from hers. The bed sat so low to the ground she banged her shoulders, the sound echoing like a gong through the dorm. Shit.If the guards came in and she was out of bed… Extra time on her sentence when she was so close to freedom she could brush it with her fingertips… That just might break her in a way nothing else in here had been able to.

Helena’s head and shoulders exploded out the other side of the bunk into the aisle. A hand snagged her foot, halting her momentum.

Adrenaline roared from her brain, down her body. She kicked her free leg like a Rockette, connecting with something solid. An oomphof pain sounded at the exact moment her foot was released.

She shot out into the next aisle and continued forward, going underneath the last row of bunks pushed against the wall. Only an inch or two of space separated her and the bottom of the beds. In her hiding place the darkness was deeper, the feeling of claustrophobia nearly overwhelming. It smelled of dust and the warm, musky stench of body soil from the hundreds of women who’d used the beds above her.

Score one for always being cold. She’d gone to bed wearing her dark-blue sweatshirt and pants. The dark colors blended into the shadows. The two Sisters she’d seen had both worn their white T-shirts—they practically glowed in the dark.

She slid along the cold floor, using her hands and feet to propel her. Her hip bones scraped against the concrete, the material of her sweats not nearly thick enough to prevent the bruises she could feel forming. Her breath rasped in and out of her lungs, loud as an overweight ogre with asthma. She needed to quiet herself. There wasn’t one woman in this whole dorm that wouldn’t give her away if a Sister asked her directly. Her best bet was to keep silent and keep out of sight.

Hide-and-seek as an adult didn’t carry the same appeal as it did when she was seven.

The guard station behind a wall of glass was in the front of the room. She slid that way.

Surely the Sisters wouldn’t murder her in front of the corrections officers. And surely the COs would intervene if they actually saw her being attacked—especially if it happened right in front of one of the cameras. They wouldn’t want the investigation or the paperwork a dead inmate would cost them.

She stopped at the end of the row, looked all around, saw no one in the aisle, then moved out into the open and back over underneath the bunks she’d initially used to escape. The Sisters would expect her to cower against the wall. But she intended to move back to her row. They wouldn’t expect that. Hell, maybe she should move back to her bed. They really wouldn’t predict her being there.

“What the—” A woman’s startled voice cut off with a thump and slap.

Helena twisted just enough to look behind her and to the left. A Sister landed on her hands and knees three bunks back. They couldn’t fit under, so they were going over.

 Great.

Helena stared at the guard station and willed CO Holbrook to look up at the monitors and see the Sisters crawling in and out of the aisles. But, nope. He was tapping away on his cell phone. Probably playing a damned crush-the-candy game while she was in here fighting for the right to keep sucking air.

Helena peeked out into the aisle to her right. Empty.

Quick as she could, she slid out into the aisle and under the middle row of bunks. Her row. She held her breath to listen and craned her neck to see if anyone was coming from any direction. Maybe all the Sisters were in the far aisle checking for her. No way was she that lucky.

“Goddamn it! I’m trying to sleep,” an inmate shouted. A Sister moved off a bunk into the aisle, squatting on her haunches, her back to Helena. The woman gestured with her hands, pointing to the row just on the other side of where Helena hid. They must’ve realized she wasn’t hiding over there against the wall and were all coming back.

Helena made her move. Quiet in a way she never knew she could be, she slid out from under the bunk, across the aisle, and underneath the set of bunks she’d just left. Thank God the Sister didn’t have eyes in the back of her ass.

This back-and-forth, back-and-forth felt like a tennis match. Could she do this all night without them finding her? The odds were not in her favor.

The Sister crawled over Helena’s empty bunk into the aisle beyond.

Another Sister landed in the aisle, hands-and-kneeing it until she moved up and over Helena’s empty bunk and went into the aisle beyond. “What the fuck?” Carrie yelled the words at a volume sure to draw the CO’s attention. “That was my hair you just ripped out.”

At the guard station, CO Holbrook stood and looked out the glass into the darkened dorm.

Yes!

“Get off me!” Helena yelled the words at nearly the same volume as Carrie. Her voice snapped and broke. Her throat scratched from disuse, and best of all, no one would suspect her of yelling. It had been nine years since she’d last uttered a word out loud. Not since her first grade three concussion from the Sisters. After that, keeping her voice to herself had seemed the only way to keep ahold of her soul.

Holbrook’s face transformed from an expression of merely listening to full-on rage-monkey because he was going to have to do his job. He turned away from the window and headed for the door leading into the women’s dorm.

 Oh shit.If Holbrook caught her out of bed… Helena sprint-crawled underneath the bunks until she was across the aisle from her bed. She dived the remaining feet, jumped into her bed, and ripped the covers up over her body.

A Sister materialized on the right.

Instinct and self-preservation raised Helena’s hands just in time to protect her face. The shank sliced open Helena’s palm, just before she caught the Sister’s wrist, preventing the weapon from gouging out her eye. With both hands, she fought the superior strength and weight of the Sister pushing the blade down.

A light blazed on, and Helena saw her blood dripping down her hand and meandering to her wrist, then winding a path toward her elbow.

The Sister’s pressure on the weapon shifted, and for a moment Helena thought she might survive.

Could she be winning? Could she outmatch the Sister’s weight with sheer tenacity and a will to live?

Pain exploded in her gut. Breath woofed out of her. Her body went on lockdown from the gut punch. No oxygen came in. None went out. Her grasp on the Sister’s shank hand slipped, and she caught the blade just a few inches from entering her eyeball.

Psychedelic spots formed in her vision. Her arms shook. She couldn’t hold off the inevitable for much longer.

Shouting all around them. Male shouting. Shouts from the inmates.

The blade was so close Helena could see brown smears covering the sharpened edge. Dried blood? Her blood? From the last time they’d tried to kill her?

The Sister’s body shifted, tilted, her full weight bearing down on Helena. She couldn’t help it—a scream filled with anger at the unfairness of life erupted just before the blade pierced her.

***

Thomas Brown drove toward a pain and purgatory he couldn’t deny. The only light in existence came from his truck’s high beams guiding him up the low hills, down the shallow valleys, and around the crazy twists and turns. The night and road conspired to soothe the smoldering anxiety that had taken him over ever since he’d gotten called out on this case.

For one indulgent moment, he fantasized he was alone on the planet. No people. No pain. No death. A smile stretched the scar on his cheek uncomfortably—a bitch slap back to reality, if he’d ever felt one.

The dancing gray lights of patrol cars suddenly came into view at the bottom of the next valley.

A scene he was familiar with, except tonight for some reason, those gray lights were a glaring reminder of what he couldn’t see. Color. His memory told him those flashers weren’t plain. They were red and blue—at least they had been before his stepfather kicked him in the face at just five years old.

Brain injury, optic nerve damage—the diagnoses didn’t matter—the result remained the same. Total and complete absence of color. He missed the everyday colors the most. The chestnut warmth of a dog’s fur, the ruby red of a ripe apple, the calming azure of a cloudless sky. He imagined all these, but tried not to. The act of remembering put a lump in his throat that made him yearn for a beauty he’d never have.

A life without color was a life without passion. And lack of color wasn’t even the worst of it.

Thomas pulled up and parked behind a long line of patrol cars. Every car in the county had to be out here. Murder was big news. He flicked off the headlights and killed the engine while he took in the scene.

Past the cars, a group of officers huddled off to the side. A mottled shadow of sorts settled around them. Parts of it were dark, parts of it were light, and parts of it were as wispy as tendrils of fog. Even though he hated seeing the shadow, it carried a frightening beauty.

The first time Thomas had seen the shadow was when he’d awakened from his stepfather’s kick to the face. Lacking an adult vocabulary, he’d called it a shadow monster. Over the decades, Thomas had come to call it by its real name. The shadow of death.

The officers congregated in a large group, sipping from steaming mugs, chatting, and laughing as if they were tailgating for their favorite team instead of at a crime scene. Murder was a sobering event. There but for the grace of God, and all that, rang truer in the presence of a body whose life had been taken. But not here, not tonight. He shouldn’t be surprised. This was exactly the kind of department Thomas’s stepfather ran.

Normally, Thomas didn’t get called out on cases this close to home, but Sheriff Robert Malone had called the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and specifically requested Thomas. Fucking interagency cooperation.

There was something more than a little suspicious that Mom’s memorial service was tomorrow. Especially since Malone knew the only way to get Thomas to interact with him was on the job. Was the guy going to try to talk him into some public show of family solidarity for the service? Screw that.When it came to Malone, the only emotions Thomas could find were shame and hatred.

He should leave. Drive off before anyone noticed him. But there was the greater good to consider. Solving a murder might prevent another murder. Then there was his more selfish motive—every case he helped to solve, every perpetrator held accountable, eased a tiny bit of the anger and hurt that Malone would never be brought to justice for what he’d done.

Thomas sucked in a slow, resigned breath, got out of the truck, and walked past the first of the parked patrol cars. A snowflake caught in his eyelashes, melted to a droplet, and fell onto his cheek like a frosty tear.

Across the expanse of squad cars and flashing lights, he spotted Malone in the crowd and wished he hadn’t. His shadow loomed large and dark and roiling like the blackest of smoke—a warning to stay away.

Thomas’s heart jogged around his chest, his lungs felt like they were in the middle of bench-pressing four hundred pounds, and his body superheated from exertion and bad expectations. Muscle memory. After all these years, Thomas still reacted to Malone with the terror of a frightened child.

His footsteps faltered. He froze, buried under an avalanche of bad memories.

Get over it. Grow up.He should be used to the fear of having to be near Malone by now. He wasn’t. Just seeing the man made him feellike a helpless child. Yeah, he had four inches and forty pounds of muscle on the guy, but that cowering child inside him could not be reasoned with.

“Thomas?” A gnarled, old man’s voice spoke from beside him. “Are you all right?”

Thomas recognized the voice—Pastor Audie, who the kids had called Pastor Oldie when Thomas was a child. The man wasn’t just old; he was ancient. And a dead ringer for Gandalf the Grey.

Thomas turned his attention to Audie. The old man’s thick, gray beard reached halfway down his chest and his long, gray hair was cut the same length. Thomas half expected him to be wearing a wizard’s hat and carrying a staff. Instead, Audie wore a long, baggy coat that looked way too big for his slight frame. A thick, knitted cap with a jaunty yarn ball covered his head, and a bulky scarf wrapped his throat.

The thing Thomas liked most about Audie was the light, ethereal shadow that flitted and swirled around him like dancing butterflies. It was the kind of shadow that Thomas could watch all day for its beauty.

Audie’s face was a weathered map of life, but carried a calming acceptance. He reached out with a thickly mittened hand to touch Thomas’s arm and looked him directly in the eye instead of at the scar covering half his face.

The old injury covered his cheek, ran up his temple, and spanned a portion of his forehead. Despite age fading the brightness, most people still stared. Thomas didn’t mind. He wore the scar proudly. It was a blazing condemnation of Malone and his actions. Didn’t matter that no one else saw it that way. Malone knew. That was enough for now.

“Are you all right?” Audie repeated the question.

Thomas’s gaze wandered to Malone and the darkly dangerous shadow of death writhing around him. Was he all right?“No,” he answered truthfully. Audie was one of those people you couldn’t lie to. Who would have the audacity to lie to an elderly pastor, Gandalf look-alike or not?

The old man squeezed Thomas’s arm gently, bringing his attention back to him. “I know this is hard for you.” An understanding that shouldn’t exist lived in his eyes.

For a flash of a second, Thomas thought Audie meant it was hard for him to be near Malone. But no one knew his painful secret. As a child, fear of Malone has superglued Thomas’s mouth shut. What Audie really meant was that it was hard being out here working a murder scene when tomorrow they were burying his mother. Audie didn’t know that Thomas’s mother hadn’t given two shits about him. If she had, she wouldn’t have let Malone beat him.

Thomas didn’t know how to reply to Audie’s heartfelt words, so he opted for a subject change. “What are you doing out here?” It wasn’t exactly the middle of the night, but it was cold and snowy and no place for a man who had to be pushing ninety.

“I ask to be called every time there’s an unexpected death in the county…to offer comfort and guidance to those in need.” The pastor’s voice contained a latent sadness.

Thomas couldn’t help it, he looked at the party-like scene playing out in front of him. No one needed comfort here, except for himself, and just by his presence and concern, Audie had done the job.

“I don’t drive at night anymore.” The old man’s teeth began chattering on the last word. “I caught a ride with one of the deputies.”

Thomas reached into his coat pocket and took out his keys. He hit the remote start on his truck and unlocked the doors. “How about you wait in my truck while I work, then I’ll drive you home?”

A smile fired on Audie’s face, shaving decades off his appearance. “I’d very much like that.”

“I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Thomas called over his shoulder, threading his way between the parked patrol cars. From this distance, he could see the body lying on display in the middle of the road. Something about that felt wrong. It was hard to put his finger on what. Maybe it was how everyone seemed to ignore it, and no one seemed to care that a life had been stolen.

Malone walked up to the body, gazed at the ground for less than two seconds, then headed back to a pack of officers.

“Looks like a full moon tonight.” Malone’s voice came out deadpan and flat. The officers didn’t laugh. Nope. They guffawed. The sound of their merriment was wrong—so fucking wrong—when a human being lay dead on the pavement.

Thomas glanced skyward at the thick padding of clouds blowing bits of snow over them. Malone had said, Looks like a full moon tonight. Full moon? The thing wasn’t even visible. The joke wasn’t funny. The words didn’t make any sense.

Yeah. Cops were masters at dark humor, but this went beyond that. Where was their indignation that a life had been taken? But he shouldn’t expect anything less. These were Malone’s good ole boys.

Malone and the officers were in a huddle, not paying attention. Good. If Thomas was lucky, he might be able to get in and get out before anyone noticed him. If he was unlucky, which seemed to be his norm, Malone would notice him and try another male-bonding exercise on him. Wasn’t that a crack to the nuts? The guy who’d caused all Thomas’s problems now wanted them to be best buds. If it was his way of seeking forgiveness for what he’d done… Fat fucking chance.

A portable light was aimed down at the dead guy. All around him, a nebulous and faint shadow of death hovered. Thomas was going to commune with the fading residue. Though that wasn’t the officialexplanation of his ability. His superintendent simply thought he was able to make accurate extrapolations from minimal evidence. Wasn’t like Thomas could explain communing with the shadow of death. That’d only earn him an all-expenses paid vacay to a locked-down psychiatric facility.

As he neared the body, the musky scent of unwashed flesh, pot smoke, and those death scents—urine and feces—hit him like an invisible wall. The dead guy wore a dark sweatshirt with jeans, both covered in splotches of something. Dirt? Without color, it was hard to tell. He lay on his side in a slightly stretched-out version of the fetal position.

Thomas walked around the body, careful to stay away from the fading fragments of the shadow of death.

The dead guy’s complexion was grimy and smudged as if he were a few weeks over due for a shower. His jaw hung open just enough to make out blotchy, rotten teeth. Bushy, greasy, light-colored hair topped the guy’s head. He either had a wicked cowlick or was suffering from a chronic case of bedhead. His pants had slid down, revealing the white globes of his ass.

So that was the reason for Malone’s full-moon comment.

Every one of those cops who laughed was a degenerate. A low-life scum sucker who deserved to have his testicles popped like a pimple.

Thomas crouched next to the body, entering the shadow of death. An odd heat settled over him. A sensation that mimicked the feeling of sunshine, or maybe that was the fires of hell reaching across space and time to warm him on this frigid night. He couldn’t know for sure.

It was against procedure and protocol, but he grabbed the waist of the guy’s jeans and hiked them up over his ass—the only bit of dignity he could offer.

He’d also just contaminated a crime scene. But Malone shouldn’t have called him in if they hadn’t already bagged and tagged and logged everything into evidence. Thomas’s analysis called for a hands-on evaluation. By the time he got done, the integrity of the scene would be fucked to hell from his sweat and touch DNA.

It was time to work.

Thomas went down on his knees near the guy’s face. His heart revved, on the verge of overheating. He inhaled slowly to calm himself, but nothing other than leaving the shadow of death would help. Bad shadows always made him feel bad, the same way that good shadows like Audie’s eased him.

His hand trembled as he placed his palm alongside the guy’s temple. Ring finger and pinkie on the guy’s forehead, thumb and first finger on his cheek, middle finger hovering over the guy’s closed eye.

Heat burned into Thomas’s fingers, then his hand, and up his arm, expanding into an inferno. Sweat oozed from his pores, a bead of it slipping down the channel of his spine. He braced himself. Clenched his teeth so he wouldn’t cry out. Then pressed his middle finger to the man’s eyelid.

An inferno of agony shot from the guy’s eye up through Thomas’s body and into his own eye framed by the scar. A grunt of animalistic pain ripped out of him. Misery bounced off the walls of his skull. A kaleidoscope of color exploded in his vision. Why was it that only during these pain-filled moments did he finally see color? The unanswerable question drove him mad.

And then the shadow of death shared the man’s life with Thomas.

It was like watching a time-lapse video, except deeper and more real. Images, thoughts, and feelings flowing through him as if all this man’s experiences from birth to death were now Thomas’s.

Thomas could feel the carefree joy of a child on Christmas morning. The innocent arguments with an older brother. Learning to ride a bike, falling off, skinned and bloody knees, but getting back on. Learning to drive. The pain of a first heartbreak. College. A good job as an accountant. Then the tearing, burning, searing agony of a car accident that should’ve killed, yet left him alive with a destroyed body. A body that couldn’t function without pills. And when there were no more pills, he’d turned to heroin to survive. A decade of being enslaved to the high. The terrible things he did to get his H. Lying. Stealing. Selling himself.

One last score, and he would be done. His mother and brother would be so happy, and this time he wouldn’t let them down and he wouldn’t let himself down. But first a goodbye to his greatest friend and worst enemy.

A man in a car, face hidden in shadows, but holding out a baggie full of his favorite flavor as an offering. Sex for H was no big thing, especially when his medicine made him feel no pain. He climbed in the vehicle, dosed up as the man drove them out into the country. Didn’t care about anything. Nothing. Enjoyed the high as long as it would last, and it never lasted long.

Needle after needle, high after high. Until they all blended together into a floating euphoria. And when he was too weak to dose himself, the man did it for him until…

Nothing. Blackness.

Thomas ripped his hand off the guy’s face.

The pressure in his own eye eased, but this time something was different. He still felt connected to the shadow. As if it had grown roots into his heart. No. No. No. Impossible. No way. Get away from the body.He never had this reaction after taking his hand off the body.

He lurched to the side to escape the remnants of the shadow and the fires of hell raging inside him.

Suddenly, he felt the frigid ground on his palms and through the knees of his jeans. The coldness was such a relief that if a body hadn’t been lying there, he would’ve stretched out right there in the middle of the road and luxuriated in the soothing coolness.

The heat burning inside him faded.

“Tommy.” Malone’s voice came from behind him.

Thomas’s heart seized, then started shivering. His innards shook, and he gulped air. Adrenaline laced with the urge to fight or flee galloped through him. But he could do neither. He wasn’t strong enough yet. What the hell was wrong with him?

And he fucking hated being called Tommy.

“Tommy, are you all right?”

Audie had asked the same thing, but with Audie, the question had come from genuine concern and caring. From Malone, it meant Thomas needed to get his shit together and not give the man an opening.

“Tommy…” And there was the stepfatherly concern in his tone.

Thomas sat back on his knees but didn’t look at Malone.

 Get up. Get out of here. A heaviness in his limbs prevented him from moving.

Time to divert Malone’s attention. The last thing he needed was for the guy to touch him or try to help him. There was something especially awful about Malone’s shadow of death. It penetrated somehow, kinda like this dead guy’s had done.

Thomas gestured with his free hand toward the dead guy. “Heroin.” When Malone didn’t say anything, Thomas finally looked up at him. The shadow of death around the man undulated and pulsed like a living thing. Thomas tried to ignore it, but his mind transported him back to all those times when he’d been a child and Malone had loomed over him, about to hurt him.

His heart moved from shivering to vibrating. He fought back the irrational fear that kept trying to take him down.

Malone’s eyes never deviated from Thomas. They roamed over him, taking in his face, lingering on the scar, then going to his hair. “I figured as much.”

 Huh?So much time had passed with Malone staring at him that Thomas couldn’t even remember what the original question had been. He pointed at the corpse to force Malone’s attention there, but the guy’s focus remained fastened on Thomas.

Thomas started to stand. His legs jangled, but he got upright. Probably couldn’t take a step without falling on his face, but at least now he could meet Malone as an equal. Actually, more than an equal, since he was so much taller. His heart calmed as he looked down his nose at the smaller man.

He was going to tell Malone the basics, then get the fuck out of here. The guy could read the rest in his report. And then there were the things he wouldn’t include in the report. Things like how sad it was that drugs had stolen another life. This guy had a mother and brother who loved him. Who would’ve done anything to help him get clean. This guy had potential. He might’ve gone on to do great things. To contribute to the world in a positive way.

But Thomas didn’t tell Malone any of that. “This guy’s name is Jeremy Tucker.” Thomas sketched in the most pertinent information about Jeremy being an addict seeking one last high and the man who kept to the shadows and forced Jeremy into an overdose. “This was murder.”

“Murder?” Unfiltered shock sounded in Malone’s voice. He finally looked away from Thomas to the body, scanning the dead guy as if he should be able to see evidence to corroborate Thomas’s words. There was none.

“Yeah. Mmmuurrrrddddeeerrrr. Why the hell else would you call me out here?” Thomas didn’t rein in the attitude. “You’ll find enough heroin in this guy to kill five other people.” It was a little weird that Thomas could know such things without the benefit of a tox screen. But that was why he was considered a special consultant. “The guy who bought his sexual services was careful to keep his identity in the shadows. Which makes me think murder was his intention all along.”

Malone’s gaze swept Jeremy Tucker top to bottom, looking for evidence. “How could you know any of this just from looking at the body?” His words weren’t the challenge they should be, but were  curious more than anything.

“Trade secret.” This wasn’t the first time Thomas had been asked how he knew things, and it wouldn’t be the last. “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.” His tone conveyed a little too much glee to be a joke.

Thomas dropped his volume so only the two of them would be able to hear. His lips and mouth ripped back over his teeth in a snarl of pure disgust. “Quit with the devoted stepfather routine. Don’t think that just because Mom’s memorial service is tomorrow, we’re going to pretend to be a happy family. We’re not. We never will be. I fucking hate you.” He sounded childish and didn’t care.

Malone’s expression crumpled as if Thomas’s words had wounded him.

Something about that, about the man’s absolute inability to recognize the harm he’d inflicted, was a match to the powder keg of rage Thomas carried inside. He drew his fist back, prepared to rain down a lifetime full of pain. Give the man a beatdown that would probably land him in the hospital and Thomas in jail. It would be worth it. Oh, so worth it.

A movement from the corner of his eye caught Thomas’s attention. Audie slowly made his way between the cruisers. Even at this distance, Thomas could make out the look of concern on the old man’s face. Thomas half expected him to yell out some profound words and bang his staff on the ground. If only he lived in a fantasy world instead of reality.

Thomas’s rage died. Whatever he wanted to do to Malone, he couldn’t do it with Audie watching.

He turned away from Malone but spoke over his shoulder. “Say a prayer of thanks to God and Gandalf… Audie just saved your life.”

 


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